Friday, February 23, 2018

Juilliard Chamber Music: Mozart, Shostakovich and Ravel

On Sunday afternoon I went to a chamber music recital at Morse Hall given by the Azure String Quartet, consisting of K.J. McDonald and Brenden Zak, violins, Hannah Geisinger, viola, and Yifei Li, cello.  The group was part Juilliard's Honors Chamber Music and had been coached by the program's director, violinist Joseph Lin, along with cellist Natasha Brofsky.

The program opened with Mozart String Quartet No. 19 in C major, K. 465 (1785), the last and best known of the composer's six "Haydn Quartets."  The quartet's nickname "Dissonance" derives from the opening adagio section of the first movement that initially fails to establish a home key as each of the instruments makes its first appearance on a different key than the others.  It should be remembered that at the time the quartet was written Mozart was only a year away from composing Figaro and was quite clearly thinking in terms of dramatic effect.  The adagio achieves this by purposefully confusing the listener before sweeping away the uncertainty with the opening notes of the allegro that definitively establish C major as the home key.  It's a very theatrical gesture for a genre that was still in its infancy only a few years after Haydn had created it in his Op. 20 quartets.  Something similar occurs, but in reverse, in the third movment when the bright mood of the C major minuet is darkened by the trio in C minor.  It's this deliberate sense of drama that makes the quartet one of Mozart's most fascinating works to hear.

There followed Shostakovich's String Quartet in C minor, No. 8, Op. 110 (1960). Written in East Germany while Shostakovich was composing the score for a Soviet film memorializing the horrific destruction of Dresden by the Allies in 1945, this is an extremely dark work that has become the most popular and frequently performed of all the composer's quartets. It was not the the gloomy reminiscence of World War II alone, though, that gave this work its black texture. Shostakovich was at the time undergoing serious personal problems that led him so far as to consider suicide. The causes of his depression were multiple. For one thing, he felt he had betrayed his principles by bowing to pressure from Khrushchev to join the Communist party. For another, the muscular disorder (poliomyelitis) from which he long suffered was progressing to the extent that he found it difficult to continue playing the piano. These afflictions prompted Shostakovich to regard the quartet as his valediction and even epitaph. As he wrote to his friend Isaak Davidovich Glikman regarding the piece:
I reflected that if I die someday then it's hardly likely anyone will write a work dedicated to my memory. So I decided to write one myself. You could even write on the cover: 'Dedicated to the memory of the composer of this quartet'.
After a brief intermission, the program closed with Ravel's String Quartet in F major (1903).  This is a fairly early piece that Ravel wrote while still a student of Fauré, the quartet's dedicatee.  Ironically, Fauré did not think very highly of the work and actually referred to the final movement as "stunted, badly balanced, in fact a failure." Such a comment must have been a great blow to Ravel's pride.

The Ravel quartet was composed only ten years after fellow French composer Debussy had made his own contribution to the genre, and comparisons are often drawn between the two, especially since both use fundamentally the same structure. Ravel, however, saw his quartet as an early example of neoclassicism and fundamentally different from that which Debussy had penned. According to Ravel:
"Stravinsky is often considered the leader of neoclassicism, but don't forget that my String Quartet was already conceived in terms of four-part counterpoint, whereas Debussy's Quartet is purely harmonic in conception."
The recital was extremely enjoyable to hear, not only for the high level of musicianship shown but also for the eclectic nature of the program that leapt from era to another.

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